Torture Garden is yet another of the Amicus horror anthology films from the 1960s. If you’re a fan of these movies then this one is a fairly typical member of the breed and you might enjoy it.
I’m personally not the biggest fan of these movies, with the exception of Asylum. What made Asylum so successful was that the framing story wasn’t just an excuse to string together several unconnected and unrelated short horror films. The framing story was the core of the movie, and it was the creepiest part of the movie.
Sadly in the case of Torture Garden the framing story is very feeble indeed. You have a carnival sideshow, with a waxwork fortune-teller who offers you a glimpse into your possible future. Burgess Meredith hams it up outrageously as the carney running the sideshow, in a desperate attempt to inject some life into proceedings.
Four punters are offered a look at their prospective futures. The first story involves an idle chap hoping to inherit his uncle’s fortune who is foiled by a diabolical cat. The one plot twist is all too predictable, and it provides a very disappointing start to the movie.
Things pick up a little with the second story, about an aspiring starlet determined to make it in the world of movies no matter what price she has to pay. She discovers that to become part of the inner circle of stars whose careers seem to go on forever involves a very high price indeed. This story works because the plot twist isn’t quite what we’re expecting it to be.
The third story is about a man whose piano is jealous of his new girlfriend. You know exactly what’s going to happen, and sure enough that is what happens.
The fourth story is by far the best and almost rescues the film. It’s helped quite a bit by a bold casting decision, with Jack Palance as a bookish, rather diffident Poe scholar and collector. Of course being Jack Palance you keep expecting him to suddenly do something very Jack Palance-like, but he doesn’t. And teaming him with Peter Cushing is a similarly odd choice that works. Both men are obsessive collectors of anything and everything Poe-related, but when Cushing invites Palance to his house he discovers that Cushing’s collection contains treasures that are literally beyond anything that he could have imagined in his wildest dreams, or his worst nightmares. He finds himself in a situation as strange and terrifying as any Poe story. It’s a nicely weird story and Palance and Cushing are able to add even more layers of weirdness with their off-beat performances. It’s also the only story that achieves a real atmosphere of horror.
So what we have is one excellent story, one reasonably OK story and two very weak stories, combined with an uninteresting framing story. Robert Bloch was a competent enough writer and Freddie Francis was a compete enough director, so it’s difficult to explain why this movie just doesn’t deliver the goods. There’s not much flair or enthusiasm evident on the production side. But then as I said earlier I’m not a major Amicus fan, and if you’re a hardcore fan of their anthology films you might enjoy this one more than I did.
This one is worth a rental for the Palance-Cushing Poe story, but it’s not one I’d really recommend purchasing.